Savvy Sailing

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Yamila Sigler is wondering whether she enrolled in a Berlitz course instead of a sailing class. All morning on Miami's Biscayne Bay, in a 23-ft. keelboat called the Woolly Bully, instructor Dean Sealey has been drilling her and three other students on tacks (zigzag turns), nuns (channel-marking buoys) and cunninghams (sail-tightening lines). "English is not my first language," frets Sigler, 33, a civil engineer who came to the U.S. from Cuba a decade ago. And sailing jargon is certainly nothing she ever expected to learn. As the Woolly Bully heads home, Sealey tells Sigler to do the docking — which will of course require her to luff the jib (loosen the front sail). "They told me this would be relaxing," says Sigler. "I'm not relaxing."

But when Sigler docks the boat successfully, her mood swells like a mainsail. She can do this, she realizes — and within a few weeks, she and her husband Alex, 36, who like her is taking lessons at Miami's Castle Harbor Sailing School this summer, will be certified to sail solo in a basic keelboat. "We don't drink, smoke or party a lot," says Sigler, "so when we go on vacation or a business trip to a place like the Bahamas, we want to sail."

The urge to be your own skipper is spreading. Since the mid-'90s, the number of students in U.S. sailing schools has more than doubled, to almost 150,000. The number of schools accredited by the largest certification organization, the American Sailing Association (ASA), based in California, has grown 40%, to more than 200. Keelboat-certification enrollment at schools affiliated with its smaller rival, U.S. Sailing, based in Rhode Island, has leaped 200%, to 6,000 students. That boom has turned the mom-and-pop sailing-instruction business into an industry that takes in more than $30 million a year. It's also creating a smart new way of sailing without all the hassles of owning a boat. "Certification has created a major evolution of expectations on the public's part," says asa executive vice president Harry Munns. "Interest in sailing has grown far beyond what boat sales used to reflect."

A sailboat, it has often been said, is a hole in the water into which one pours money. Weekend sailors joke that boat is an acronym for Bring Out Another Thousand. A used 18-ft. sloop can cost $10,000, while a new 36-ft. two-masted ketch can run $100,000 and up. And then there's the maintenance and the commitment to sail from a single port. Sailing courses, however, free their students from these costs and limitations. That's because U.S. certifications are accepted in most ports around the country and the world. Graduates can use their certification to rent a craft, usually for less than $50 an hour or $250 a day.

The rental option is especially popular with sailors who love to travel and try the waters in different locations. With a sailing certification, you can live in Los Angeles and rent a boat nearby, or try a different craft and scene for the weekend up the coast in San Francisco, or take a weeklong vacation cruise in the Adriatic, with a boat rented out of Venice. "People make more money today, but they've got less leisure time," says Cai Svendsen, owner of Castle Harbor. "So it's not that they can't afford to own a boat; many are just too smart to own one."

Until a decade ago, sailing was still seen as largely the domain of wealthy yachtsmen in blazers and ascots. But in the '90s, burgeoning incomes, improved technology, the popularity of cup races — and the growing standardization of certification rules — democratized the marinas. "It's not viewed as such a niche activity anymore," says Sealey. Fiberglass construction has vastly increased the fleet of boats available for classes and rentals, while innovations like the self-tacking jib (a front sail that adjusts itself to the wind) have made sailing more pleasant and easier to learn.

Exclusive yacht clubs are being overtaken by sailing clubs, whose $30 monthly dues are more comparable to those of bowling leagues. As a result, sailing "draws from a far deeper pipeline today," says Nick Craw, head of U.S. Sailing, which serves as the national competitive governing body and runs popular youth summer camps. But as sailing turns into a more plebeian — read: more crowded — activity, lax maritime safety becomes a concern, just as it has with powerboating. Hence sailing associations' insistence on certification standardization, which has stiffened safety and emergency-procedure training.

Getting basic keelboat certification can involve as little as four days of combined classroom and sailing instruction, costing about $500. More advanced certification, usually requiring living on board a larger or more sophisticated craft for a few extra days, can run $2,000. Some sailors work their way up from keelboat basics and earn certificates to sail boats up to 60 ft.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic customers are businesspeople. They see sailing as an enjoyable way to spend downtime during meetings in San Diego or Singapore. But because all the ropes and levers make the sport as multitasked as it is serene, they also consider it a means to build corporate team skills. "It's more fun than office yoga," says Maguie Jones, 43, a Miami real estate investment executive.

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